When President-elect Joe Biden first announced his candidacy in 2019, he laid out his core values. Top of the list was opposing outgoing-President Trump’s rhetoric that embraced the neo-Nazis who stormed Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 even before similar fringe elements of Trump’s base stormed the Capitol this month.
As the Democratic primary rolled on, Biden expanded his platform, at times borrowing from the more than 25 opponents he once faced. He slowly grew more liberal — even progressive — on issues like green energy and criminal justice reform. Now, as Americans of all stripes eagerly await Trump’s exit, thousands of progressive activists across the country are unwilling to let those principles espoused by Biden be resigned to the bin of undelivered upon, soaring campaign promises.
Many activists and community organizers have already been working on these issues for years and — with or without Biden’s support — they plan to keep pushing no matter the party of the next president.
A Washington Post survey found that as of December 5 — weeks after the election was called for Biden by every reputable news outlet — only 27 congressional Republicans out of 249 acknowledged Biden’s win. The incoming president also continues to deal with an array of obstructionist policies and procedures put in place by the outgoing Trump administration to make his job as difficult as possible, despite the raging coronavirus pandemic, which is overwhelming hospitals and front line workers nationwide.
Yet, two weeks before that survey was published, a national activist coalition had completed a 24-hour occupation of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters demanding that the president-elect “be brave.”
The activists say they were there to ensure that the incoming Biden administration follow through on its agenda by addressing the intersecting crises of climate change, racial injustice, and economic inequity. Margaret Kwateng is the National Green New Deal Organizer at Grassroots Global Justice — an alliance of more than 60 US-based grassroots organizing groups of working and poor people and communities of color that was one of the core groups participating in the occupation. For her and her organization, there was no time to waste, even as outgoing President Trump was unsuccessfully challenging the election outcome.
“It’s clear that we’re at the center of multiple crises at this moment,” Kwateng told The News Station. “The crisis of Covid, the fact that almost 300,000 people are dead in the United States, the crisis of the economy — obviously it has taken a pretty significant dive for working people since the pandemic got out of control — the crisis of the climate, with multiple hurricanes that have been hitting the Gulf and the fires on the West Coast, and then the crisis of racial justice and the continued police killings.”
While some had argued that the Biden administration needed time to “get their feet under them,” the activists understood high-level decisions were already being made and they wanted their voices to be a part of the conversation from the outset.
“Part of that action was that we were inviting Biden to take bold action, and it does feel like it was important to do it soon after the election because right now is when the next administration is deciding who are the members of their team, who’s going to be in their cabinet, and what are their priorities,” Kwateng explained. “They’re meeting with hundreds of groups and really starting to think about what’s going to be shaping their policy in the first hundred days, and so it felt really important to be out in the streets and really be presenting what we think are critical aspects of any actions that Biden takes in that first period.”
Members of grassroots movements often speak of their work through an intergenerational lens. Ashley Nicole McCray of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) has a family that has been involved in activism on behalf of Native Americans for generations. She lives in the same area her father’s family settled into after the Trail of Tears in the 1800s, and her maternal grandfather Buddy Lamont was killed by a United States Marshall’s sniper bullet at the end of the Occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.
While her people’s myriad of concerns literally go back hundreds of years, living in Oklahoma over the last four years she has witnessed firsthand the damage that Trump’s aggressive rollback of environmental protections and oil and gas regulation has caused.
“What I’ve seen on the ground here in Oklahoma that has really been devastated by the Trump administration has to do with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency),” McCray told The News Station. “When Trump was elected into office, he did several terrible things, including Executive Order 13766, which basically expedited environmental reviews and approvals for high priority infrastructure projects, which are basically pipelines.”
Oklahoma was “basically premised and predicated on the stolen land of indigenous people and the discovery of oil,” McCray said. Trump’s 2016 win was devastating for vulnerable communities in the state who were already fighting a fracking industry that was simultaneously causing earthquakes in a region that previously hadn’t had any while also dumping untold amounts of wastewater, fighting the coal industry and its coal ash dumping, as well as fighting several pipeline projects to protect the sanctity of water rights. That’s why Biden’s inauguration is seen as a victory to many, though the battle is far from over.
“No one politician is going to solve or save us,” McCray said.
The opportunity to engage a drastically more environmentally conscious Biden administration is certainly a plus. While the Indigenous Environmental Network and its allies are glad the terrain has shifted a bit, they are still preparing for an uphill battle — part of the reason they came to DC to participate in the DNC occupation.
“It’s definitely not our ideal situation or the ideal space that we were hoping for, but I think that so far the Biden administration — or at least his transition team — has left the door open for many different indigenous community leaders, including IEN, to be in those spaces to talk with the transition team around issues related to the climate and the decisions around who’s going to be put into the EPA,” McCray said. “So it may be a situation where we’re going to have to learn how to play politics a little bit more because he’s going to go ahead and pick some of these people who have policies and have agendas that don’t necessarily vibe with ours.”
The new Congress is also under a tremendous amount of pressure to come to some sort of compromise on a new round of coronavirus relief, which Biden is urging even Republicans to get behind.
Progressives are hoping that after Biden’s inauguration he gets behind the THRIVE Agenda co-introduced in the House by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) of The Squad and in the Senate by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
It attempts to provide a Covid response through eight pillars, ranging from creating millions of good, safe jobs with access to unions to averting climate catastrophe while investing in Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.
“It’s long past time for Congress to take bold action to protect our families, jobs, and planet,” Omar said in a statement. “At a time when the global pandemic has destroyed lives and livelihoods across the US and exacerbated the inequalities that are impacting our communities, it is more important than ever to tackle this crisis in a comprehensive and equitable form.”
It already has more than 80 co-sponsors across both chambers, but based on the last few months, even a basic coronavirus response bill seems like a heavy lift for this hyper-partisan Congress.
Progressives did cheer during the lame-duck period after the House was able to pass the MORE Act — a comprehensive bill that decriminalizes marijuana at the federal level, while also seeking to invest in communities left blighted from the war on ‘drugs.’ Of course, states all over the country have decriminalized marijuana in various forms — from medical in the majority of states to recreational, which is now legal in 15 states after November.
Morgan Fox is the media relations director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), a trade organization dedicated to marijuana legalization. He says, ultimately, decriminalization alone wasn’t why the legislation was moved in the House.
“The MORE Act has a number of provisions related to restorative justice, one of them being expungement for (cannabis related) federal charges or convictions,” Fox told The News Station. “There’s language in there that would help create funding for women and minority-owned businesses through the SBA (Small Business Administration). There would be a 5% tax added to cannabis sales at the federal level that would then be used for community reinvestment programs, and that’s an excellent start. But there’s still a lot of work to be done at the state level.”
The bill was dead on arrival in Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate, thus will have to be reintroduced this new year. Nevertheless, supporters of the act say it was an important vote for several reasons. Among them are that the bill marks the first time that there has been a federal step towards marijuana decriminalization, and advocates say taking this one historic step certainly moved the conversation forward.
Another important aspect of the vote, according to Queen Adesuyi — a policy manager at The Drug Policy Alliance — is that it publicly forced members of Congress to weigh in on marijuana, which lets advocates know who still needs more information on the issue.
“I think folks underestimate how much work it takes to do all the political education in Congress,” Adesuyi told The News Station. “A lot of members in Congress are so behind the times and are completely misunderstanding the plant and drug policy in general and still live with a lot of stigma for drugs and people who use drugs.”
For Adesuyi and The Drug Policy Alliance, marijuana decriminalization is just a step on the road to completely reimagining drug policy as a whole. Both advocates of prison reform and drug policy reform point to the significant disparities across race in drug arrests and convictions.
“For decades, marijuana laws have been used to criminalize Black and Brown people, waste taxpayer money, and fuel the mass incarceration crisis,” an ACLU report released last April stated.
Straightforward arguments like this propelled The MORE Act across the finish line in the House, but for it to actually become law it needs more momentum. Adesuyi hopes that Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris will provide it.
“I think it actually helps that the Senate sponsor and lead of The MORE Act in Congress is now the vice president-elect,” Adesuyi said. “The hope is that not only will we be continuing to make headway in Congress, we will have an administration that will be cognizant of these issues, and we are hoping to see Vice-President-elect Harris use her influence to move this issue along with President-elect Biden.“
Even after Trump’s defiant challenge to the election and the Capitol riot he personally fomented, progressives are ultimately hopeful pragmatists — the type who hope for the best but prepare for the worst. “I don’t want to get my hopes up too high,” Kwateng said, “but I’m in it for the long haul, and I’m feeling that steadiness.”
In California, as the nation was celebrating the Biden and Harris victory, criminal justice reform advocates were celebrating another set of victories on the ballot. The defeat of Proposition 25 — a ballot measure cloaked as an end to cash bail, but one that would also give more pretrial incarceration power over the accused to judges and the probation industry — was the result of old-fashioned, grassroots level campaigning.
Lex Steppling is the Director of Campaigns and Policy for Dignity and Power Now (DPN) — an L.A. based grassroots organization — who also worked on several successful criminal-justice-based campaigns ahead of November.
“Grassroots organizing is not a platitude,” Steppling told The News Station. “Everybody calls themselves a grassroots organization, but very few people actually invest the time and the energy and the accountability to build a base, to mobilize a base, and to activate a base.”
Opponents of Proposition 25 faced powerful foes in the form of tech billionaires, most notably John Arnold of Arnold Ventures and Steve Ballmer — the former CEO of Microsoft and current owner of the Los Angeles Clippers — who combined to spend millions of dollars on their own pro-Proposition 25 campaign. In addition to benefiting from confusing language on the actual ballot, the controversial measure even received support from some anti-cash bail advocates due to its inclusion of some measures that were favorable to the movement.
However, for Steppling and other opponents of Prop 25 ‘some’ wasn’t good enough, and through a combination of community and grassroots organizing, as well as an aggressive social media strategy — one that saw ‘#Noon25’ trend number one in California twice in the weeks leading up to the election — they overcame long odds and lots of cash to defeat the ballot measure.
“We’re supposed to articulate possibilities that people can realize rather than say, ‘they’re saying that this is the only thing that you can achieve,’ so let’s lower our expectations,” Steppling said.
For those who have been working on bail reform in California, this victory was the culmination of years of work but certainly not the end of the journey. The defeat of Proposition 25 left a void where holistic and people-centric bail-reform policy should exist — one that bail reform advocates are already working to fill.
John Raphling is a researcher with Human Rights Watch. During his two-plus decades as a practicing attorney, bail reform is something he has studied carefully. He says the next steps involve crafting potential legislation and getting it in front of lawmakers.
“I believe that everyone who believes in reform knows we just have to turn back to the job,” Raphling told The News Station. “SB10 (the original bill on which Proposition 25 was a referendum), Prop 25 was a bad approach. We have to present a good approach, and we’re hard at work doing that right now.”